Nuclear mishaps

After almost 40 years of cover-ups, the U.S. Government released 19,000 pages of previously classified documents which revealed that the Hanford Engineer Works was responsible for the release of significant amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and the adjacent Columbia River. Between 1944 and 1966, the eight reactors, a source of plutonium production for atomic weapons, discharged billions of gallons of liquids and billions of cubic meters of gases containing plutonium and other radioactive contaminants into the Columbia River, and the soil and air of the Columbia Basin. Although detrimental effects were noticed as early as 1948, all reports critical of the facilities remained classified. By the summer of 1987, the cost of cleaning up Hanford was estimated to be $48.5 billion. The Technical Steering Panel of the government-sponsored Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project released the following statistics in July 1990: Of the 270,000 people living in the affected area, most received low doses of radiation from Iodine, but about 13,500 received a total dose some 1,300 times the annual amount of airborne radiation considered safe for civilians by the Department of Energy. Approximately 1,200 children received doses far in excess of this number, and many more received additional doses from contaminants other than Iodine. [See also May 1997 and July 2000.]

The National Research Council panel released a report listing 30 “significant unreported incidents” at the Savannah River production plants over the previous 30 years. As at Hanford (see 1986), ground water contamination resulted from pushing production of radioactive materials past safe limits at this weapons complex. In January 1989, scientists discovered a fault running under the entire site through which contaminants reached the underground aquifer, a major source of drinking water for the southeast. Turtles in nearby ponds were found to contain radioactive strontium of up to 1,000 times the normal background level.

6 June 1988
Radiation Sterilizers, Incorporated reported that a leak of Cesium-137 had occurred at their Decatur, Georgia facility. Seventy thousand medical supply containers and milk cartons were recalled as they had been exposed to radiation. Ten employees were also exposed, three of whom “had enough on them that they contaminated other surfaces” including materials in their homes and cars, according to Jim Setser at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

October 1988
The Rocky Flats, Colorado plutonium bomb manufacturing site was partially closed after two employees and a Department of Energy inspector inhaled radioactive particles. Subsequent investigations revealed safety violations (including uncalibrated monitors and insufficient fire-response equipment) and leaching of radioactive contaminants into the local groundwater.

24 November 1992
The Sequoyah Fuels Corp. uranium processing factory in Gore, Oklahoma closed after repeated citations by the Government for violations of nuclear safety and environmental rules. It’s record during 22 years of operation included an accident in 1986 that killed one worker and injured dozens of others and the contamination of the Arkansas River and groundwater. The Sequoyah Fuels plant, one of two privately-owned American factories that fabricated fuel rods and armor-piercing bullet shells, had been shut down a week before by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when an accident resulted in the release of toxic gas. Thirty-four people sought medical attention as a result of the accident. The plant had also been shut down the year before when unusually high concentrations of uranium were detected in water in a nearby construction pit. [Also see 6 January 1986 for details of an additional incident.] A Government investigation revealed that the company had known for years that uranium was leaking into the ground at levels 35,000 times higher than Federal law allows; Carol Couch, the plant’s environmental manager, was cited by the Government for obstructing the investigation and knowingly giving Federal agents false information.

31 March 1994
Fire at a nuclear research facility on Long Island, New York resulted in the nuclear contamination of three fire fighters, three reactor operators, and one technician. Measurable amounts of radioactive substances were released into the immediate environment.

May 1997
A 40 gallon tank of toxic chemicals, stored illegally at the U.S. Government’s Hanford Engineer works exploded, causing the release of 20,000-30,000 gallons of plutonium-contaminated water. A cover-up ensued, involving the contractors doing clean-up and the Department of Energy, who denied the release of radioactive materials. They also told eight plant workers that tests indicated that they hadn’t been exposed to plutonium even though no such tests actually were conducted (later testing revealed that in fact they had not been exposed). Fluor Daniel Hanford Inc., operator of the Hanford Site, was cited for violations of the Department of Energy’s nuclear safety rules and fined $140,625. Violations associated with the explosion included the contractor’s failure to assure that breathing devices operated effectively, failure to make timely notifications of the emergency, and failure to conduct proper radiological surveys of workers. Other violations cited by the DOE included a number of events between November 1996 and June 1997 involving Fluor Daniel Hanford’s failure to assure adherence to PFP “criticality” safety procedures. (“Criticality” features are defined as those features used “to assure safe handling of fissile materials and prevention of…an unplanned and uncontrolled chain reaction that can release large amounts of radiation.”) [See also 1986 and July 2000.]

8 August 1999
The Washington Post reported that thousands of workers were unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other highly radioactive metals over a 23-year period (beginning in the mid-1950’s) at the Department of Energy’s Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky. Workers, told they were handling Uranium (rather than the far more toxic plutonium), inhaled radioactive dust while processing the materials as part of a government experiment to recycle used nuclear reactor fuel.

June 2000
U.S. Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) led a field senate hearing regarding workers exposed to hazardous materials while working in the nation’s atomic plants. At the hearing, which revealed information about potential on and off-site contamination at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, DeWine noted, “We know that as a result of Cold War efforts, the government, yes, our federal government, allowed thousands of workers at its facilities across the country to be exposed to poisonous materials, such as beryllium dust, plutonium, and silicon, without adequate protection.” Testimony also indicated that the Piketon plant altered workers’ radiation dose readings and worked closely with medical professionals to fight worker’s compensation claims.

July 2000
Wildfires in the vicinity of the Hanford facility hit the highly radioactive “B/C” waste disposal trenches, raising airborne plutonium radiation levels in the nearby cities of Pasco and Richland to 1,000 above normal. Wildfires also threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the DOE’s Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. In the latter case, the fires closely approached large amounts of stored radioactive waste and forced the evacuation of 1,800 workers. [See also 1986 and May 1997.]

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